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Idlib crisis could dwarf what we saw in Aleppo, Syria experts warn #SyriaWar

Idlib crisis could dwarf what we saw in Aleppo, Syria experts warn <a class="hashtagger" href="">#SyriaWar</a>

Two million Syrian civilians are trapped in Idlib province between advancing Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters, with no way out.

 A humanitarian crisis is developing in a small province of Syria that experts say could dwarf what the world saw in Aleppo.

Two million Syrian civilians are trapped in Idlib province between advancing Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters, including hardline jihadist groups.

But unlike in previous years, the border with neighbouring Turkey is now closed and civilians have nowhere to go as the fighting and the bombing intensifies.

“What’s happening out of Idlib in the north-western area of Syria is an absolute outrage,” Jan Egeland, United Nations Syria special adviser and secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council told 7.30.

“It’s a war against civilians, they are caught in crossfire.

“They are caught in continuous air raids, hospitals are being hit, refugees are being hit, people who have fled from war are being hit.”

‘Like attacking a refugee camp’

Looking down at lines and lines of white tents on bare, brown earth, with a young boy standing at the edges of the camp.

Photo: A displaced child stands outside tents at the Kelbit refugee camp in Idlib, near the Syrian-Turkish border. (Reuters: Osman Orsal)

Idlib is Syria’s last major opposition stronghold.

With the rebels largely defeated elsewhere, this is where people who didn’t want to live under Bashar al-Assad have fled.

But now, Syrian Government forces and their Shiite militia allies are coming for Idlib.

“Assad’s forces have been advancing very quickly in the province of Idlib and the southern parts of the province and it seems like they will keep advancing until they can get every inch that they can get back from the opposition,” Syria analyst at the Middle East Institute, Ibrahim Al Assil, told 7.30.

Despite being declared a “de-escalation” zone in a deal agree between Turkey, Iran and Russia, Idlib is coming under increasing attack, with near daily air strikes in the dozens.

“Attacking Idlib is a lot like attacking a refugee camp,” Syria analyst and independent journalist Emma Beals told 7.30.

“What we’ve seen since December is that 270,000 of them have been displaced again by this fighting.

“Some of them had gone to areas they thought would be safer and they’re being displaced again by this latest wave of violence.”

To make matters worse for civilians in Idlib, in the past year the Al Qaeda-linked jihadist rebel group, Hayyat Tahir Al Sham (HTS), has become the most powerful fighting force in Idlib, controlling many towns across the province.

“HTS is one of the groups that can be targeted outside of the de-escalation zone, and has been used by the government of Syria and Russia as a kind of excuse to attack these areas,” Ms Beals said.

“The people of Idlib have tried to stand up against them, local councils have tried to push back against them.

“We’ve seen protests across Idlib of civil society groups, we’ve seen them holding posters, chanting in the streets and being attacked by HTS for trying to rise up against them.”

Nowhere is safe

Bomb damage in a corridor of the Ma'aret Al Numan hospital in Idlib

Photo: Bomb damage in a corridor of the Ma’aret Al Numan hospital in Idlib (ABC News)

Last week, 7.30 filmed at one of Idlib’s biggest hospitals, in the town of Ma’aret Al Numan.

The province is so crowded with refugees, the facility now serves approximately half a million people.

But nowhere in Idlib is safe.

On Sunday night, the hospital we had been filming at was hit.

The babies we filmed in the incubators a few days ago are now being rushed to another facility, with staff worried the hospital would be targeted again.

In another part of the hospital, patients hurt by nearby air strikes continued to arrive, as doctors rushed to treat them.

One doctor carried a little girl with a broken looking leg.

“She has multiple fractures,” he told the cameraman.

“One in the leg and one in the chest. And in other places.

“This baby was pulled out from the rubble as a result of the air strike.”

Bomb damage in an incubation ward in Ma'aret Al Numan hospital, Idlib Syria

Photo: The incubation ward at Ma’aret Al Numan hospital after the air strike. (ABC News)

Hospitals a target

Monitoring groups say 103 civilians have been killed in Idlib the past 11 days, including 33 children.

Ma’aret Al Numan hospital suffered structural damage and remains closed, although miraculously no-one was killed in the bombings.

“Hospitals are protected under international law,” Mr Egeland said.

“In other wars this has worked, in this war it doesn’t seem to work.”

These latest attacks on healthcare facilities come after a Medicine San Frontiers (MSF) supported hospital was bombed last week.

UN war crimes investigators say they are also investigating reports this week that Syrian Government warplanes dropped bombs filled with chlorine on Idlib.

Opposition activist Raed Fares, from the town of Kafranbel in Idlib, is begging the world to pay attention to what is happening to the people in Idlib.

“What people here in Idlib want is simply a normal life,” he told 7.30.

“We want the world to know this. And we are not terrorists.

“I have one question; why do they have the right to kill us in cold blood under this sky?”

‘The children need protection’

A paramedic carrying his wounded son flees from the scene of an attack after air strikes in Damascus.

Photo: A distressed man holding an injured baby runs through the dust. (AP: Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets)

Experts say that if a ceasefire is not declared in Idlib, the results could be worse than anything we have seen in what has already been eight long years of bloody war in Syria.

“The worst-case scenario is the thing that no-one wants to talk about, which is the government of Syria and Russians going with the full military campaign to try and take back control of the area,” Ms Beals said.

“That will be devastating, especially as there will be a huge loss of life.”

Mr Egeland said there is still time to declare a ceasefire in Idlib.

“I do know that there is a lot of bad guys there — militants, armed militants — that are on terrorism lists but there are many more children,” he said.

“The children need protection.

“We cannot have a war, we have to have negotiations.”

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Sigma Selected

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